This post is dedicated to everyone who has struggled with addiction, whether firsthand or as the family member or friend of someone battling drug addiction. Please remember that help is out there, and you CAN recover to live a better life. Thank you, Patty, for being a guest on the blog. I really appreciate your insight into this subject.
I remember my first acid trip, at twelve, as something magical. By high school, I was pulling books on drugs and addiction off the library shelf. Each book was filled with sociological evidence of the trajectory of drug use. Marijuana led to heroin addiction, criminal behavior and prostitution. I wrote it off as propaganda. Besides, despite fitting the profile for a potential substance abuser, I was confident I’d be the exception to the rule. Sixteen years later, I went to rehab.
For clarity, I will say that mine wasn’t an immediate downward spiral into the perils of active addiction. It was more a full-steam-ahead approach to life that included a lot of fun and adventure in which drugs were always present. Occasionally I’d attempt to control whatever I’d been abusing or switch to milder drugs. Giving up drugs didn’t occur to me.
The price of addiction is always loss, and over the years the price kept escalating. I lost jobs, friends, apartments and, at times, my health. Drugs kept me away from my family, and many of my friends died. I was lost from myself, directionless and drifting. For years, a constant underlying despair accompanied me, and I was always trying to eradicate it with a substance. I never stepped off the ride until it became a life and death choice.
I have lots of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” stories and others that would break your heart. Like I said, it wasn’t a one-way street to hell after the first time I got drunk at the roller skating arena in 1972. (BTW, the gateway drug for all addicts is alcohol. I guess it slipped the minds of researchers when they came up with the term “gateway drug.”) The progression of my drug use, like most addicts, occurred over time. Addiction’s like being swept off your feet in a romantic relationship and hitting that place further down the road where you know its time to end it. The memory of the early days lingers to give you hope that maybe, just maybe, things will go back to the way they were, so you stay and nothing changes. Well – there’s no rewind button. Not in love, not in drugs, and not in life. We can look back, but we can’t go back. All we can do is move forward and find new experiences.
Not everyone who takes drugs is an addict. There are people who drink or get high recreationally, who can take it or leave it. There are substance abusers who may party hard for a year or two and then get it together and move on (without any outside help), and others who catch themselves before they become full-blown addicts and seek professional help to get it under control. And then there are addicts for whom control is not possible. As a sober coach I help people who want a way out of active addiction so they don’t have to live the life they’ve been living and deal with the pain involved. I do not personally force recovery onto anyone.
I know for an addict to want recovery, the desire has to be in their heart – but desire without action is fantasy. Talking about, thinking about, or preparing to get clean is a game many addicts play to either get someone off their back or to give themselves the illusion that they are doing something about their problem. What is always behind this lack of momentum is fear. Addicts can look down the barrel of a loaded shotgun, but they cannot handle emotional discomfort. Despite what I used to think when I was using, I got high over my feelings – to avoid them and to numb them.
Many books have been written for parents wondering how to keep their children off drugs. My philosophy comes down to this: the best defense against addiction is a supportive and non-judgmental household, an environment where kids will talk about how they feel and what’s going on with them. The earlier this is established, the better. Kids have a built in censor. They intuitively know if what they say will worry or upset the adult so they will suck up their feelings to protect the parent. Kids also are acutely aware of every time they have heard you criticizing or judging others and may not feel safe to express their true feelings and fears. Children want to be loved unconditionally – exactly as they are. Judgment and criticism is a form of rejection. They will censor information if they believe it is unwise not to. So if you have very young children, you can raise them in a household where everyone is safe to express their true feelings. If this has not been the case, and you cannot get your children to open up to you (when your heart knows something is going on), make sure they have someone they feel safe talking to (a relative, teacher or therapist). By learning how to process emotion and walk through fear and uncertainty early on, they won’t seek comfort from something external. If they’re unable to bond at their school or feel like an outsider, find clubs and activities where they can meet friends with similar interests. The feeling of “other” is common among addicts. If there has been abuse, trauma, or active alcoholism/addiction in the home, get professional help. Be the parent. Children need boundaries, rules and codes of ethics. They are also brilliant bullshit detectors. It can’t be a “do as I say not as I do” situation. Most parents get confused with boundaries. Either they deny their own past, or they divulge too much inappropriate information. Children don’t want to know about a parent’s sex life or hear glory tales of drug use only to be later told, “Sex is bad. Drugs are bad.” If you are confused how to draw from personal experience in a positive, honest and healthy way, ask a professional or seek out community parent groups. If you feel shame about your own past, it’s time for you to do some work to gain acceptance and forgiveness. I’m a big believer in therapy but people heal in support groups, 12-step programs. Speakers and workshops by people like Marianne Williamson, Melanie Beatty, Deepak Chopra and Louise Haye have helped thousands. There are many avenues to seek help getting right with yourself so that you can be 100 percent available to your child.
The main thing is that you have to understand the self-centeredness of alcoholism. From their point of view they aren’t hurting anyone, and they will manipulate and blame to justify their behavior: “If you didn’t stress me out so much I wouldn’t have to drink.” “If you would get off my back.”… they are self-pitying and believe they are misunderstood. They blame and are resentful. Then the flip side is on days they are filled with remorse, they make promises that vanish as soon as they get thirsty.This isn’t because they are bad people – they simply have a disease that prevents them from seeing the truth so it can keep being fed. The best thing is to go to Alanon to learn how to have boundaries and how to keep the focus on yourself so that you don’t get sick from your loved one’s alcoholism – sick with stress and personalize every disappointment. Sit in some AA mtgs and listen to people’s stories. Hear how they got to the place where they were willing to quit. You will be surprised at the tools it will give you when you are dealing with your loved ones. Always offer to go to a meeting with them if they are ever ready to go. They will be pissed but you never know – one day they may ask you to take them.
What most addicts have in common is a low sense of self-worth. Praise every triumph, encourage every effort, and remind your children that they are perfect and wonderful whether they come in first or last on the sports team, whether they get A’s or D’s. Showing up and giving it your best after a disappointment is praiseworthy. D’s can turn to A’s with extra help and perseverance. Raising children with a sense of self and self-worth gives them a strong emotional foundation to make them less likely to fall to peer pressure or seek comfort in substances.
Active addiction affects everyone in the family. Al Anon and Alateen are 12-step fellowships that offer support and tools for healthy coping. Google for information and local meetings. Visit this website where you can connect with other people in your shoes who can share experience, strength and hope. They also have live video online meetings. Remember what flight attendants say, “Adults put on their oxygen mask first before attending to children.” The same goes for dealing with active addiction.
Interventions can help get an addict into treatment before they hit bottom. For many, we had to choose between life and death before seeking help, but others may enter recovery because losing a job or being expelled from school is a wake-up call. Some agree to treatment after a family intervention. Perhaps in their heart they know they are not finished using and go to treatment to get the family off their back, to keep financial support coming in or for a number of other reasons. Often a spark of hope is awakened while in treatment, and they choose recovery for themselves. Rarely is an addict exposed to recovery able to go back to using without eradicating the knowledge that there is another way to live. Even after a relapse, many addicts return to recovery. We cannot get anyone clean, but we can instill hope and let them know they have a choice. In the end, recovery will always be a personal decision.